I am so honoured to be your commencement speaker today and it's really such a privilege to have received an honorary doctorate from this esteemed institution.
I am glad to see you all as we together celebrate these students’ wonderful achievements. Special thanks go to the faculty, parents, family and friends who have guided and supported you through the highs and lows every step of the way. Please give them all a round of applause.
Graduation is a remarkable achievement under any circumstances, but your graduation comes at a time when the world was upended by a global pandemic. You faced unprecedented challenges, but you persevered. What a testimony to your strength and resilience. Enjoy the special moment. Bask in the glory of your success, you deserve a round of applause.
And I am especially pleased to see so many women graduating today. AUN deserves credit for its tireless efforts in making higher education more accessible and inclusive. Graduation marks your passage to independence. It's a time when you're faced with life's big choices, the career you will pursue, the family you will build and the values that will serve as your anchor.
Let me share my journey around that time. When I was a student at Boston University, I was drawn to the field of economics, but also continued to study French - My favourite high school subject, because, frankly, I enjoyed it so much. I had no idea where my studies would lead me, but it wasn't long before this combination naturally sparked my interest in development economics, especially in Africa.
Shortly thereafter, I pursued a master's degree in international relations with an emphasis on African Studies at Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies, and by Good Fortune and effort, this led me to a career in the US Department of State. Although most of my family are involved in public service of some kind, neither they nor I had any exposure to the world of international diplomacy. In fact, I was the first person in my family to have a passport.
I had to forge my own path, and I did so with the US Foreign Service in Cameroon, Namibia, Togo, South Africa, Suriname, Mali, Ethiopia and of course, Nigeria.
Whatever path you all choose, my graduation wish for all of you is that you will find that path as fulfilling as I have mine and I'll be talking a little bit later this morning about the ways in which we might do that now, I was fascinated to learn that several years ago, a team of experts at Google in California saw a bright, pulsating light on their usage map in northern Nigeria.
The tech team decided to visit Yola and investigate the source. They were astounded to discover that the American University of Nigeria was driving more than 50% of all Google searches in the whole of Nigeria. How incredible is that?
Since learning that, I've always thought that AUN is truly a bright, pulsating light and whatever career you decide to pursue, AUN has provided you with a rigorous education. It's provided you with the knowledge and tools to prepare you for your future, and it has provided you with relationships and a network that will guide you in life. Right. AUN has always responded to some of the big challenges of the times. For example, AUN recently welcomed Nigerian students forced to return from conflict-ridden Ukraine. During the Boko Haram crisis in 2014, AUN students, faculty and staff fed more than 300,300 internally displaced people.
After the Chibok students were kidnapped, in 2014, AUN led a team to bring back those who had escaped. Almost all the women freed in 2021 are now studying at AUN, and I commend AUN for facilitating funding for these students from an American donor and the government of Nigeria and its commitment to continue doing so.
I am immensely proud of the US mission in Nigeria's efforts in partnering with AUN and expanding education in northern Nigeria. AUN is the lead implementer of USAID Nigeria’s Strengthening Education in northeast Nigeria (SENSE), which began in 2019 and will continue through Sept 2022. Through this activity, AUN is developing and strengthening the education systems in Adamawa and Gombe States, for children in primary one to three.
But the truth is there is no script or algorithm to tackle the unprecedented challenges the world faces today. As we saw during the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, the world leaders did not have all the answers. It took creativity, innovation and global collaboration to help lead us from the despair of 2020. As the most educated and tech-savvy generation of graduates, you are uniquely positioned to provide fresh solutions to address some of the world's most difficult challenges. More than any time before or community, your country and the world need you.
For me, no one embodies public service more than the late former US Secretary of State Colon Powell who dedicated more than 40 years of his life to service in the military, government and volunteerism. Speaking to young graduates a few years before his passing, Secretary Powell urged them to do something that helps their fellow citizens; make sure you give a good measure of their time and talent in the service of others. The need to serve others has never been greater.
I'd like to share a few thoughts today about three critical elements of service, to yourself, to your community and to your country.
Let's start with Service to self, It means taking good care of your physical, and emotional needs, your health needs and your spiritual and intellectual needs. With service to self and the resilience that it brings, you have a much better chance of becoming the best you can be wherever your life and your career might take you.
The second important type of service is service to the community. Many of you are already doing this as part of your community-based curriculum, and I'm so heartened to hear how many of you are lending your neighbourhood or district helping out, either individually or through partnering, partnering with an NGO or Civic Minded Corporation to solve a local problem or specific needs. Serving your community can also mean staying connected with AUN by mentoring students, expanding professional networks through collaboration, and by innovatively contributing to this institution's sustainability.
Also, stay connected with your alumni network. It would be a useful group to support your life's work. One example of a successful alumni group I admire was formed by Nigerian participants of the Mandela Washington Fellowship for Young African Leaders or YALI.
The YALI program provides outstanding young leaders from Sub Sahara Africa the opportunity to hone their skills at US Higher Education Institutions with support for professional development after they graduate. There are two of these young leaders that come to mind that continue to inspire me and shine a light in Nigeria. The first is Segun Adaju.
He started his company in 2010 to end power blackouts in rural communities. The personal loss and illnesses caused by fires and toxic fumes fueled Segun’s determination to look for solutions. Today, his company has successfully provided solar-powered electricity, water and additional school facilities to three off-the-grid communities in Abuja. Higgins's work succeeded because he was highly focused on a specific problem, and he learned through YALI how to network and bring in other partners.
So much is US African Development Foundation. His work reduces both greenhouse gas emissions and poverty. Another inspirational YALI is improving her community through engagement in political and civic life. Abiodun Essiet serves as a special adviser to the executive chairperson of the Abuja Municipal Area Council. Through her role, she created a gender unit to help develop gender-sensitive policies and ensure the inclusion of women and girls in decision making. It's also helping connect civil society organizations with the local government by facilitating the signing of an open government partnership, which elevates the role of citizens, community groups, and civil society in the creation and adoption of community. I hope the contribution of these two YALI alumni will inspire you to start thinking about how you too can contribute to your community.
Lastly, the third critical service is service to your country. Arguably, success in personal growth and community service automatically also serves the national interest, but there's more. Seeing the big picture and how you fit into it is part of being a responsible and caring deck democratic citizen.
With your background and experience, it will be up to you to recognize the passive service that fits you best, but don't forget that service to your country can take many forms. Some of you might become entrepreneurs whose quest for efficiency and advancement will create meaningful employment and sustainable economic growth. Your ingenious generation will no doubt lead to groundbreaking inventions to address climate change and health challenges Some AUN students are already making their mark.
Last year, a final year software engineering student, David Edijala, launched an innovative new payment platform, Zinger Wallet, for making easy payments and managing finances. Asked about his success, he noted that “from the moment we got into AUN we were taught development, community service, leadership and everything about how to better our community and think of ways to make things that are already working even better”.
You may choose a part of public service; you may consider a career in part running for elective office, working for a national company or authority; you may become a good diplomat like me that represented Nigeria and to those who may tend to represent creativity through arts remember arts leads to discussions, cross boundaries, changed attitudes and influence upon us. Art is a passionate language. Literature brings new perspectives and can unite, these are forces that can move individuals and create movements that change.
There are also abundant ways to serve your country on a personal level by just advocating for the course you believe in and casting your votes all of you can get going back to your country by shaping its policies and directions by following the issues by making your voice heard and by voting.
I can’t stress this enough: voting is the way your voice can be heard, and to ensure that issues that concern you and your community become a priority for lawmakers and elective individuals and gives you access to those who may wish to earn your vote what matters to you…
What happens when you don’t vote? Former First Lady Michelle Obama said this morning you are giving your power to someone else, someone who doesn’t necessarily see the world the same as you. You are letting them make some really key decisions and the truth is that they are hoping you would stay home for them to make key decisions about the way you live for you.
Bon appetit! It is an easy trap to fall into.
I see this in my own country all the time, I know it’s easy to get discouraged and to doubt that your vote will make a difference, but again please remember that voting is your voice, it is only through voting that you can hold those for whom you vote accountable.
It is you and your generation that has the future of Nigeria in your hands as you become the most significant demographic in Nigerian elections, and you owe it to yourself and to your country to demand an elected leader who will govern and provide security and justice and services for all Nigerians. This is the call to action in 2023.
Before I conclude my remark today, I would say a few words about the importance of being vaccinated against Covid-19 you may have heard it from your leaders or the United Nations and from the media but despite efforts to move vaccines and I would add donations of more than 27 million vaccines from my country, so far only 14.6% Nigerians are fully vaccinated; 36.5% have received 1 dose.
The vaccine is becoming more readily available, and more are coming. I mentioned this also because you would be performing all 3 kinds of services if you decide to get vaccinated. You would of course be protecting your own health and that of your family. Second, you would be protecting those who are vulnerable in your community, your house, your favourite restaurant, and your place of worship; all would become a safer place to be, and finally, if you have the Covid-19 vaccine the sky is the limit like literarily, you can board a plane and travel around the world. But even on a local level, you can travel around Nigeria and bring us all back to the state of normalcy.
In closing, remember you don’t have to accept the world as it is, you have the opportunity to shape the world as you want it to be. Serve yourself, serve your community, serve your country, vote, and get vaccinated against Covid-19. Congratulations, Class of 2022! Keep shining your light, keep making a difference, and keep making us proud. Thank you so much!!!
Mary Beth Leonard
U.S. Ambassador to Nigeria
Saturday, May 21, 2022.